My review of Slavoj Žižek’s Living in the End Times, in the Telegraph.
Slavoj Žižek may well be the last great thinker of our time. In an era when lighting on one half-formed notion – “the end of history”, “the third way”, “Islamo-fascism” – is enough to get one hailed as a public intellectual to rival Russell or Sartre, the Slovenian philosopher puts all conceptual comers to shame. In recent years he has been the manic, dishevelled subject of two documentaries and maintained a schedule of sold‑out lectures (many of which go straight to YouTube) that looks as gruelling as a high-end rock tour.
But it’s not merely that Žižek’s energy for self-promotion is prodigious. Rather, it’s his range that impresses – he’s equal parts forbidding theorist of the contemporary political and cultural scene, and contriver of entertainingly elaborate paradoxes. If it weren’t for the hangdog persona and residual communism, he’d be an intellectual dandy: the closest thing we have to the mock-aristocratic socialist Oscar Wilde.
His books have lately veered between svelte polemics on the perverse core of Christianity and the valuable legacy of Leninism to heftier volumes that promise, but never quite deliver, a systematic statement of his philosophical position.
Living in the End Times is one of the latter: a sprawlingly contentious and varied disquisition on everything from the crisis of late capitalism and the resurgence of anti-Semitism to the soft Utopianism of modern art museums and the comforting mythology of the recycling industry. Though the writing never ceases to dazzle, Žižek reveals himself here, surprisingly, as something like an old-fashioned moralist.
At the heart of the book is an argument that will be familiar to readers of his recent work. The language of social liberalism espoused in the West on the Right and Left alike is, Žižek contends, nothing less than the purest form of intolerance. In fact, “tolerance” is precisely the problem: a weasel word that allows politicians of any ideological stripe to claim that they act in the name of freedom.
The invasion of Afghanistan and the French veil-banning legislation are the most apposite examples – both hypocritically justified in terms of women’s rights, while existing Islamic feminism and continued Western misogyny are ignored. Emancipatory politics has meanwhile devolved into slack notions of “respect” and “difference”, and cultural particulars have taken the place of the commonality that ought to be the starting point for mass liberation.
Žižek sees this sentimental logic everywhere – in modern environmentalism, in films like Avatar and even in Michael Palin’s travel programmes.
This last incongruous reference hints at just how essential and strange a thinker Žižek is, and reminds us how far his references to popular culture are from the overexcited circus of most cultural theory. In one sense, he is an ethically driven critic of ideology and cultural fantasy of a seemingly rigorous (in his case, Marxist and psychoanalytic) sort.
Behind the veil of Western liberalism he sees obscenity and corruption, scandalously instanced here by the increasing shamelessness of politicians like Silvio Berlusconi. In the style of similar conjectures by Freud and Benjamin, he asks: “What if culture itself is but a halt, a break, a respite, in the pursuit of barbarity?” But at another level Žižek is the perverse goader of our worst tendencies, pushing the most vulgar spectacles of the media age to their madly logical conclusions.
Take, for example, his – on the face of it, bizarre and tasteless – comparison of the crimes of Josef Fritzl with “a much more respectable Austrian myth, that of the von Trapp family in The Sound of Music”. Fritzl’s incarceration and rape of his daughter, his abuse and neglect of the children she bore him: all of this is appalling but, Žižek ventures, also entirely of a piece with kitsch visions of the perfect nuclear family. Fritzl, to an admittedly extreme degree, had merely fulfilled the deepest fantasy of the patriarchal father: to “protect” his family to the extent of destroying it.
Žižek’s point – which he surely shares with a long line of philosophical moralists, from St Augustine to Freud – is that it is our most “natural” and “caring” urges that can lead us either into the silliest fantasies (the “sacred intensity” of The Sound of Music) or the horrors enacted by the likes of Fritzl. It’s a thesis with vast geopolitical implications, and Living in the End Timeselaborates some of them with extraordinary wit and rigour.